"There's a lot of kids showing up in here."
State Representative Marc Snyder was surprised to see fifty Colorado State University students flood into a Colorado Capitol chamber on February 8, but the students had plenty of reason to be there: They helped create the bill that was about to be heard by the House Finance Committee.
The measure, House Bill 24-1018, would create an exemption from the state's 2.9 percent sales tax for textbooks sold at college and university bookstores in Colorado. According to Representative Andrew Boesenecker, the bill's sponsor, he was approached by the Associated Students of Colorado State University (ASCSU), a student government organization at CSU, and asked to run a bill addressing the issue.
As currently written, the measure would only apply to bookstores that are located on campuses or run by universities, such as satellite or online bookstores. Local governments would have to opt into the state sales tax exemption as well, but the bill is supported by the City of Fort Collins and the Colorado Municipal League, and Boesenecker is hopeful that local governments will do more than just opt in.
"While permissive in nature, it's my hope that local governments will also consider the same exemption that we're considering at the statewide level today," the Democrat told his colleagues on the committee. "I think when it comes to higher education and investing in your future, it's clear that every dollar counts."
A handful of CSU students testified to their current state of dollar-counting. According to CSU freshman Isabelle Burgess, a political science major, her textbooks cost around $500 each semester, which comes to around $20 per book in local and state sales taxes.
"Colleges are already expensive as it is, and having that financial burden of textbooks does not help and does not give people the confidence to continue their education, so with this sales tax being removed, it would help a lot more people to feel confident," Burgess told the lawmakers.
So many students wanted to appear at the Capitol in support of the bill that there was a wait list, and many had to stay in Fort Collins, according to ASCSU government affairs director Michael Stella. He told the committee that the bill would "provide significant savings for students not just at CSU, but all across Colorado."
Struggling to buy dinner, fill gas tanks or pay rent is a longstanding theme for college students, but the cost of living around Colorado universities has gotten out of hand, Republican Representative Rick Taggart, an adjunct professor at Colorado Mesa University, told his colleagues.
"These last two years, students have faced even more serious financial issues, and that is that the housing around our universities across the state has gone through the roof," he said. "I probably shouldn't say this on the microphone, but I will: Every course that I teach, I ask the book publishers to give me additional copies, because every semester a student in need or maybe a couple of students will come into my office and say, 'I just can't afford any more books,' and I give them my copies."
Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and West Virginia all have laws in place exempting college textbook sales from state sales taxes, and a handful of states have similar exemptions for primary and secondary education textbooks.
According to the Education Data Initiative, an organization that monitors and analyzes United States educational data, the average cost of a college textbook was just over $105 in 2023, with undergraduate students spending between $339 and $600 for books and course supplies in one academic year; graduate school books and materials cost even more. However, the average cost of textbooks has gone down in the past ten years as electronic options increase.
Committee members were largely sympathetic to the students who testified, and several shared their own stories of struggling through financial hardships in college. Some lawmakers said they would like to see the bill's language amended to include all Colorado textbook retailers in the exemption, not just college bookstores.
Representative Matt Soper, a former student of Taggart's, said he voted against the bill for that reason. The Republican lawmaker would support HB 1018 if such an amendment were added "because quite frankly, we shouldn't be picking winners and losers in government," he told the committee.
"There's a whole network of [independent bookstores] that still exists that were willing to work with students to try to get better rates, oftentimes, than the college or university bookstore," he said. "If you now have a mechanism to undercut the local bookstores that still exist, then all of a sudden that beautiful competition element that's out there has been disrupted, and that's why I'm going to be a 'no' vote here today."
Reps Lorena Garcia, Junie Joseph and Anthony Hartsook all voted in favor, but said they would like to see independent retailers added to the exemption, too. Snyder, who also voted in favor of the bill, said he didn't have a problem with keeping the tax break limited to bookstores connected to colleges and universities, pointing out that most colleges in Colorado are already receiving state funding.
But Robert Marshall, a Democrat, had a different concern. "These kind of bills violate all the tax law principles that were in [my college] books, in terms of using tax law to subsidize or carve out special exemptions for groups that are popular, where tax law should be used solely to raise revenue for the government," he told the committee. "We don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, but this is just very bad tax policy. You start making exemptions here and there for this group or that group...that's not what tax law should be."
Despite objections from Marshall and Soper, the bill passed 7-3 and will now move to the House Appropriations Committee.